By Nishi Pulugurtha
My first encounter with the Dutch East India Company in Bengal was during a walk with my colleagues one April afternoon through the Baranagar and Kutighat area of Kolkata and a look at whatever remained of the Dutch Kuthi. Chinsurah had been on my mind for quite some time now. Unlike Chandannagar and Bandel which are the oft-visited places, Chinsurah is a place which most people have not thought of visiting. Or, even if they have they have just visited the Hooghly Imambara in the neighbouring town of Hooghly on a trip to Bandel and Chandannagar. There have been people who have guffawed when I have told them about the Dutch cemetery in Chinsurah that needs to be visited. However, a few history and heritage enthusiasts, dear friends, jumped at my idea.
Stopping by a local dhaba for a quick breakfast, we reached Chinsurah in about two hours from Kolkata. Chinsurah is a town and municipality in the Hooghly district of West Bengal, India. According to some, the name Chinsurah is derived from a cane called ‘chinchira’, while others say that the word is derived from chura Bengali for ‘spire’. Located on the banks of the river Ganga, the Grand Trunk Road traverses the town. The western bank of the river Hooghly has long been the site of colonial rule. Long before the English East India Company, the Portuguese, the Dutch, the Danes and the French had settled on the western banks of the river and vestiges of their colonial heritage and history are still evident in the towns of Bandel, Chinsurah, Serampore and Chandannagar.
It is believed that the Portuguese founded the town of Hooghly-Chuchura in 1579. However, this place traces its origins to a much older time when it was part of the kingdom of Bhurshut and then became part of the Mughal Empire during the reign of Akbar. From about 1615, the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie, VOC) traded in salt, opium, muslin and spices. Chinsurah remained a Dutch Colony from 1635 to 1824. The Dutch built a fort, Fort Gustavus, here. A settlement came up and trade thrived. It was this trade that became a threat to the emerging British power. The Battle of Plassey cemented the power of the East India Company in Bengal. In 1759 the garrison of Chinsurah, on its march to Chandananagar, attacked the British. The Battle of Chinsurah lasted less than half an hour and ended with the Dutch rout. In 1795, during the Napoleanic Wars, a British garrison occupied the area. The peace of 1814 restored the area to the Dutch; however, the Dutch power came to an end with the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824.
One of the first monuments that we stopped to visit was the tomb of Susanna Anna Maria. Located just outside the town, on the Grand Trunk Road, this two-storeyed octagonal structure in white was built in 1809. Arched gateways and columns are another architectural feature of this tomb. Now under the Archaeological Survey of India, the tomb is surrounded by well-laid out lawns that are enclosed by a boundary wall. Huge steps on all four sides lead up to the four arched gateways. The tomb has no epitaph; however, the dome has an inscription: “Susanna Anna Maria Yeats, nee Verkerk OBIT 12 May Anno 1809”. Susanna Anna Maria was a Dutch lady. Her first husband was the Dutch Pieter Bruyes, the Dutch director of Bengal. After his death she remarried an Englishman, Thomas Yeats. Both Bruyes and Yeats were laid to rest in the Dutch cemetery. Known locally as “saat saheber bibir kabar” (tomb of the lady with seven husbands) or “memsaheber kobor”, the structure is hard to miss as one drives past the G.T. Road. Ruskin Bond’s story “Susanna’s Seven Husbands” is said to have been inspired by Susanna Anna Maria. The story was later made into a Hindi film directed by Vishal Bharadwaj, “Saat Khoon Maaf”. We sit on the steps for a while taking in the charm of the structure. The huge white structure stands up brilliantly against the blue sky.
We leave G.T. Road and enter the town and not before long we are at Ghorir More, an intersection of four streets, in the heart of Chinsurah. Ghorir More is so called because of one of the iconic landmarks of the town – a 19th century clock-tower made of cast iron. Imported by the British in memory of King Edward VI, this clock is in working condition. Most government buildings are close by.
Nothing of the Dutch Fort Gustavus remains today. Above the staircase of the bungalow of the Commissioner of Burdwan is a plaque with the letters “VOC 1687”, a sign of the Dutch past. Next to the Hooghly Madrassa nearby is a house that once served as the residence of the Dutch Governor of Chinsurah. The original building has been demolished and the British constructed a building in the same place, which serves as the residence of divisional commissioner of Burdwan. All that is left of the old fort, what was once the barracks, is the Hooghly Madrassa. Close by, the Governor’s House is now the District Magistrate’s office. The District Court, built on the remains of the Fort, is an example of British military architecture and was built as barracks for British soldiers in 1827-29. The building is said to have the longest corridor in India and is symmetrical in design. Timber-louvered doors and windows and railings adorn the façade of the building. It was a Sunday when we were out exploring Chinsurah. The Court was closed and we had to be satisfied with seeing it from the outside. A few people, who looked like employees forbade us from taking photographs and told us that we needed to go to Bandel and Chandannagar to do sightseeing. These two places have a lot in store for the visitor, they told us. We smiled and went our way. Their response tells one a lot about how people view the town. The compound of the commissioner’s house still houses two VOC canons. Hooghly Mohsin College on the other side of the maidan close by was once the residence of the French soldier Perron.
As we navigate the streets and lanes of Chinsurah looking for the Dutch cemetery, we find it after quite a bit of asking around. Located in what is now a residential area, the cemetery has about 45 graves dating back to 1743. Built by Louis Taillefert, the then director of the Dutch East India Company in Bengal, the cemetery was in use in the 18th and 19th centuries. An Archaeological Survey of India site now, the cemetery is empty when we reach at about three in the afternoon. A board at its entrance tells us a little about its history. A large number of graves are in the form of mausoleums, obelisks, tombs, apart from some with simple grave stones. It is green around and a sense of peace pervades the place. There are a few trees, bare branches and no leaves, dead and still standing tall. Almost all of these trees have huge creepers clinging on to them, adding to the green. A strange way in which life and death co-habit, much like the way residential houses have come up all around the cemetery. A shimul tree in full bloom (it is spring time) adds colour to the place.
The oldest tomb here belongs to Sir Cornelius Jonge who died in Chinsurah in 1743. Other prominent people buried here are Daniel Overbeck, Gregorious Herklots, a high official in the VOC, and George Vernet, another VOC director. Some of the notable Dutchmen buried here include Robert May, a pioneer of women’s education in India; Pieter Sterthemius, the first director of the factories of the Dutch East India Company; and Jan Albert Sichterman, an officer of the company. The tomb of Susanna Anna Maria’s first husband Pieter Brueys, the tallest obelisk in the cemetery, can be seen here.
Chinsurah is also the home to the oldest Armenian church in India that is open only once in January. A lone caretaker refuses us access into the Church saying that we need permission to do so. We had to be content with just the view from the outside. The huge structure is located in Crooked Lane not far away from Ghorir More. Known as St. John the Baptist Church, it dates back to the late seventeenth century. On the bank of the river, in another part of the town, is a Hindu temple that bears a Dutch legacy too. Legend has it that years ago the local fishermen rescued an idol of the god from the river and installed it in a temple built by a local landlord. Daniel Overbeck, the last Dutch governor, gifted the shrine two brass drums and the temple ghat was built by Shyamram Shome, a high official of the Dutch East Indian Company.
I had read about Mondol Bari which is located at Kamarpara Balaram Lane. It was a large house and belonged to one of the important business families in Chinsurah. We asked around and navigated narrow lanes but we could not locate any old house. What we saw were new houses and apartments. One of the apartments had the name Dutch Villa. We walked along the lanes and were told that members of the Mondol family lived in this area. We then found an old house enclosed within a small boundary wall and on this wall was a small writing on a paper stuck to the wall stating that this was a heritage building. Most of the older structures have been built upon, renovated and used by members of the Mondol family. As we were looking around, Arup Mondol, a member of the family and a few other family members came out and started speaking to us about their family and buildings. We were shown a huge outer wall that is a remnant of the old building and now has been reapproriated into a newer structure.
Since we had time, we decided to visit Hooghly Imambara, a place that most people are aware of. Located in the twin town of Hooghly, the Imambara is a huge impressive structure. Built in memory of the philanthropist Hazi Muhammad Mohsin, the imposing structure took 20 years to build and was completed in 1861. This is the only place where we found tourists. The two-storied building has a rectangular courtyard in the centre that is decorated with fountains and pools. The two tall towers of the Imambara enclose stairs that take one up. As one climbs up the 152 steps that lead up the tower, one can see the clock, its apparatus and the bell. The mosque within the complex has intricate designs and passages from the Quran engraved on the wall. Its interiors are decorated with candles and lamps. The courtyard at the back contains a sun dial. The Hooghly River flows by beyond all this.
As we travel to the Imambara, negotiating the streets, I notice a board on a building. Signs such as these have been put up on all buildings that have historical heritage. These signs have been put up by the Chinsurah Municipality in association with the government of West Bengal and the Dutch government. They are good pointers for history and heritage enthusiasts like us. This building on the banks of the river has been restored, bears a fresh coat of white paint, and its windows painted green look out to the river. It is in this building that Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, the great Bengali novelist is said to have stayed and composed the national song “Vande Mataram”. The caretaker tells us that the building had been in a bad state. He even shows us an old photo of the building and tells us that it has been over a year since it had been renovated. He takes us in and opens the doors to all the rooms in the building. It is obvious that few visitors come here. Steps lead down to the river here as well.
As we travel around the town, looking for signs of its history and heritage, there are many who look at us in surprise, some others volunteer information and show us around. When I set out to explore the Dutch legacy of Chinsurah, I had read about the place and a little about its history. I was aware of the restoration work being done by conservation architects, of a digital humanities project on the Dutch cemetery, but what we got to see in the town transported us to another time. Old houses, some in a bad state, a few patches of repair done here and there, many pulled down giving way to newer constructions, lanes and streets leading to buildings and places revealing the past glory of the town. The people, some very helpful, some not willing to allow us to enter and see, some even sceptical as to why we wanted to see the buildings, some sharing details of their family’s connections with the Dutch heritage, showing us around and volunteering information, made the trip worth every bit of it and much more. Colonial vestiges here and there, in a small plaque, in a tomb, a building, a corridor, a canon, a graveyard, boards at all the heritage sites helping us to see, know and understand, the languid river flowing by – a witness to all that has been and still is, the ghats bordering it, some a part of the history of the town. It is dusk when we leave, taking a part of the town with us. Every moment of our trip to this town has opened up to us rich treasures of the glorious past of the place.
Dr. Nishi Pulugurtha is Associate Professor, Department of English, Brahmananda Keshab Chandra College, Kolkata. She is an academic with varied interests and writes on travel, too. Twitter: @nishipulu
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